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YouTube ordered to reveal the identities of video viewers

Çağlar Arlı      -    14 Views

YouTube ordered to reveal the identities of video viewers

Federal US authorities have asked Google for the names, addresses, telephone numbers, and user activity of accounts that watched certain YouTube videos, according to unsealed court documents Forbes has seen.

Of those users that weren’t logged in when they watched those videos between January 1 and 8, 2023, the authorities asked for the IP addresses.

The starting point of one of the investigations is an entity that uses the handle “elonmuskwhm” and is suspected of money laundering by selling Bitcoin for cash. As part of the investigation, agents sent the suspect links to tutorials on YouTube about mapping via drones and augmented reality software.Then they asked YouTube to send them data about the people that watched that video.

But those video tutorials were not private and had been watched over 30,000 times by the time the agents asked YouTube’s parent company Google for information about the viewers.

In another case, related to a bomb threat, the authorities asked for information about the viewers of eight selected live streams. One of those live streams has over 130,000 subscribers.

The police received a threat from an unknown male that there was an explosive placed in a trash can in a public area. When the police went to investigate the matter, they found out their actions were broadcasted through a YouTube live stream camera. Apparently similar events had taken place before, so for good reason law enforcement is after the evildoers.

But asking for data of that many viewers, many of which we can assume to be innocent bystanders, goes against what privacy experts believe to be reasonable. This type of digital dragnets go against the fourth amendment: freedom from unreasonable searches.

Albert Fox-Cahn, executive director at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) said:

“No one should fear a knock at the door from police simply because of what the YouTube algorithm serves up. I’m horrified that the courts are allowing this.”

According to the documents Forbes has seen, the court granted the order but asked Google not to make it public. We don’t currently know if Google complied with the request for information.

Google spokesperson Matt Bryant told Forbes:

“We examine each demand for legal validity, consistent with developing case law, and we routinely push back against over broad or otherwise inappropriate demands for user data, including objecting to some demands entirely.”

STOP condemned the US Department of Justice for securing a bulk warrant to track every YouTube user who watched the completely legal videos about mapping software for drones.

John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Forbes:

“What we watch online can reveal deeply sensitive information about us—our politics, our passions, our religious beliefs, and much more. It’s fair to expect that law enforcement won’t have access to that information without probable cause. This order turns that assumption on its head.”

Warrants like these turn innocent people into suspects for no other reason than watching a perfectly legal video. The YouTube warrants are similar to geofence warrants, where court issues a search warrant to allow law enforcement to search a database to find all active mobile devices within a particular area.

These warrants turn the fear that certain online searches or your viewing history is going to put you on some kind of list, into reality. It also encourages users to use a VPN for even the most harmless activities and discourages YouTube visitors from logging in.

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